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Originally scheduled for a 3 April show this year, when the Canberra Comedy Festival was in full swing, Ronny Chieng found himself having to reschedule to July after being picked up for yet another TV project.
As celebratory a moment as this is for the man, it is hardly a surprise at this point, with Chieng’s career burgeoning from stand-up, to his own ABC show International Student, to featuring in global cinematic hit Crazy Rich Asians, to a regular slot on The Daily Show, and to stand-up once more.
“I work day and night, but it isn’t an issue when you love what you’re doing,” the affable Chieng says.
But no matter what the project or level of success, first and foremost for Chieng is always the comedy.
“I do stand up every night in New York, and on weekends I tour, so it’s very much part of my life and my creative process,” he enthuses. “I literally think of nothing else all day except jokes. You live it. Stand up isn’t easy, but you still have to find time to do it. It is a job. But it’s part of my everyday life; every second of the day. It’s all I ever think about. Stand up fuels everything else I do. When I’m really happy with how my stand up is going, it helps creatively with other projects.”
One of these creative projects is Chieng’s own International Student on ABC, which follows a loveable bunch of students on campus. Similar to Community, it’s a ripe concept for whacky characters aplenty, but Chieng also had more in mind.
“It was definitely a case of ‘write what you know’, and I also tried to tell a story I felt no one else could tell, and no one else has told.”
“It’s a delicate act to celebrate who we are, but also not go for easy jokes,” he says, as far as race and comedy is concerned. “A lot of the show was telling an authentic story. Another part of it is doing jokes that have nothing to do with being Asian. They’re just funny jokes. And part of it was also doing Asian jokes, but owning them. So it’s not just us doing the same shitty joke; it’s us doing jokes from our perspective. We take shoes off, sure, but here’s our perspective on it. Our parents are very demanding, yes, but they’re also very loving. So it’s both sides. A lot of people don’t have the perspective to tell the whole story.
“It was definitely a case of ‘write what you know’, and I also tried to tell a story I felt no one else could tell, and no one else has told,” he continues. “And the fact that international students in Australia is a billion dollar industry and no one’s really told that story before. I thought it was a very Australian story.”
Not necessarily wanting to make the genial chat with Chieng overtly political or concerning race, I nevertheless gently tabled the concept of accents in comedy, or performance in general. To whit, a white performer is generally safe with attempting a Scottish, Irish, South African or American impression, but steering toward an African, or particularly Asian, impression is problematic territory, even if the accent is pitch perfect.
Fortunately, Chieng enjoyed the challenge and was more than happy to expand on the potentially touchy topic.
“Man, that’s a very difficult question. It’s a very good question,” he says. “All art forms are not a science. There’s no ‘this is this’ and ‘this is not’. So I’m very hesitant to give any hard and fast rules because people will point to it and go, ‘”Well, he said this is OK if you do it like this”.
“What are you actually trying to say? Are you saying that Asian people can’t speak English? Or are you trying to bring people into your story by making them understand what you heard?”
“That being said, if you’re impersonating a specific person, like Jackie Chan or whatever, I think that’s legit. I think the problem is you have to look at the history of how people are making that joke, so you have to divorce the context and reality. It is possible to do it correctly. I’m not even saying an accurate impression, I’m talking about the context of what you’re saying. I’m a comedian; I lean toward the side of making fun of everything, But it’s the same reason we don’t go around saying the n-word. There’s a context to it you might not want to be giving out.
“The Asian accent is interesting,” Chieng continues. “It depends what you’re trying to make fun of. What are you actually trying to say? Are you saying that Asian people can’t speak English? Or are you trying to bring people into your story by making them understand what you heard? It’s not a science. I don’t even know what the right answer is. It’s like in the Supreme Court in America trying to decide what porn is. And they’re like, “Yo, I don’t know what porn is, but I know it when I see it.” I think it’s the same thing. I know what a racist accent sounds like; I couldn’t give you a definition, but I know it when I hear it!”
Having the fortune and pleasure of interviewing a number of comedians over the years, one common trait that I have noted is the reticence to be given a label – be it the political comedian, the prop comedian, the racial comedian. I wondered if Chieng was worried about the same thing?
“It’s certainly there from the start,” he says. “When I started stand-up I was telling that story; the Asian perspective. After doing that for a bit I started avoiding it for the reasons you just mentioned. And then I settled into a comfortable, ‘I’ll talk about something if I think it’s funny’. And if it happens to be Asian, fine. But I’m not going to do it for the sake of doing it. With storytelling, authenticity resonates, so if I’m really getting to what I want to say, I think it works. As much as I don’t want to be the ‘funny Asian comedian’, I do want to be the ‘funny comedian’! But being funny is being authentic to your story. So I can’t avoid it.”
In regards to being authentic, I enquired as to whether he plans to do a Big Sick like move; the film with which Pakistani-American comedian Kumail Nanjiani told his very personal story in superb, hilarious fashion. In terms of talent and position, Chieng would be perfectly situated for such an endeavour.
“Yeah, sure,” Chieng enthuses. “My job is storytelling, and as a stand-up I’m constantly mining personal experiences. I think I’m getting better at telling stories and writing scripts. It’s something, like anything, that you need experience doing. I’m lucky to have that with The Daily Show and International Student. Working on those scripts was like a Masters course in screenwriting. So it (a film) is definitely something I want to do. I’m getting to a point where I’m confident I can write something like that, whereas before it would be pretty daunting.”
With the future on the mind, it was time to probe about what us folk can expect from his latest show.
“The usual personal experiences,” he says. “It’s hard for me to talk about it without giving stuff away! I’m not a theme-show style comic either, so it’s just me giving bits and pieces away. This isn’t saying much, but if you liked my other shows, this one will be right up your alley as well.”
A ringing endorsement if ever I heard one.
Despite Chieng’s continued success, he remains an extremely pleasant, humble, and of course funny – person who is thankful to anyone and everyone who is a part of his career. You can continue the love on Tuesday, 9 July at the Canberra Theatre Centre.